Transportation Deployment Casebook/2015/Light Rail Transit in the US

Dylan Garritano

Light Rail Transit



Light rail transit can be defined as “a metropolitan electric railway system characterized by its ability to operate single cars or short trains along exclusive rights-of-way at ground level, on aerial structures, in subways, or occasionally, in streets and to board and discharge passengers at track or car floor level” (Transportation Research Board's Urban Public Transportation Glossary). While the official definition is broad, light rail is the new trend in American public transportation. The mode is considerably cheaper to build than subway systems (heavy rail) and does not require such high levels of density to be effective.


Rail transit, specifically Light Rail Transit has advantages over a bus and allows riders to travel where other vehicles cannot. Supporters of rail transit cite larger passenger capacity (Kim, 2006) and faster average speeds as major advantages over bus transportation (Kuby, 2004). The average capacity of a light rail train is approximately 240 passengers per train car; and a typical light rail train includes two to four cars which results in 480 – 960 passenger per train (Fouracre, 2003). Using Fouracre's capacity numbers, it can be assumed that a light rail train potentially has the carrying capacity of eight buses.

A light rail transit (LRT) system has advantages to bus transport, but not all rail transit development has been successful (Babalik, 2002). The capital cost for light rail is much greater than the capital cost for bus, and most of these costs are funded by the local governments (Fouracre, 2003) which might be fiscally unstable. Before light rail is developed, the estimations on the number of potential passengers (ridership) must be able to justify the cost. Unfortunately, ridership projections in some cities have been overestimated while simultaneously underestimating capital costs (Guerra, 2011). Ridership overestimations have resulted in many light rail systems being built that would not have otherwise been built (Babalik, 2002). The overarching goal of public transportation, increasing urban accessibility, has often been failed by hastily developed light rail systems (Lane, 2011).

Additionally, there has been a “pro-rail” bias (McCommons, 2012). The pre-development ridership estimations should not be overestimated because there may be a more cost effective alternative to light rail such as a bus (Lane, 2008). However, it is worthy to note that although the capital costs of rail transportation are greater than that of bus transit, light rail operating costs end up being lower due to the larger passenger capacity (Dell’Ollio, 2012), but the ridership must be greater than a city-specific threshold which is specific to the given city (Guerra, 2011).

It is important to note that light rail is a recent trend in American public transportation. Modern light rail transit is not the historic streetcar. The streetcar era achieved its maturity in the early twentieth century and much of the era has reached the death phase of the life cycle curve. This can be attributed to the rise of the automobile. Remaining streetcar lines primarily serve novelty purposes rather than being practical and efficient modes of public transportation. Today's light rail transit presents a return to rail transportation in the United States and could potentially be the beginning of the shift away from the personal automobile.


The development of light rail in the United States occurred in the 1980s and prior to this addition the most popular mode of public transportation was (and still is) the bus. Heavy rail is a valuable mode of public transportation but primarily serves major metropolitan areas. The primary advantage of bus transit over both types of rail transit is the cost. Bus requires no new infrastructure to be able to operate – it simply runs on existing roadway. Rising fuel costs have made bus transportation slightly more to operate. Electric light rail transit presents a potential cost savings for cities in the long term. The capital costs are significantly greater than those of bus transit, but the long term operation costs have the potential to be cheaper. Additionally light rail transit has greater passenger capacities and can spur new transit oriented development much greater than a bus line.

Development of light rail system in the United States began much later than other public transit modes such as bus and heavy rail. The first line to open in the US opened in 1981 in San Diego. San Diego was followed by Buffalo, Portland, OR and Sacramento in the next five years. By the turn of the century only 12 cities in the US operated light rail transit. Today, thirty cities in the United States operate light rail transit which is a much faster growth of light rail in the past 15 years than in the years leading up to 2000. It would appear that the turn of the century was also a turning point for the development of light rail in the US. Eighteen of the thirty existing networks were built within the last 15 years. The mode is in growth phase and it looks to continue to grow in the near future as oil prices look to continue to be uncertain and as cities are beginning to see an influx of young people moving to denser areas.

Quantitative AnalysisEdit

When looking at the growth of light rail transit in the United States it is definitely in the growth stage. Using data from the American Public Transit Association, annual unlinked passenger trips are on the rise. The only disclaimer is the missing years before 1990. While the first light rail systems were built in the mid 1980s the data only goes as far back as 1990. Since then, however, annual unlinked passenger trips have nearly tripled in the United States. Light rail transit is a mode that is continuing to be developed in the nation and is likely to continue until reaching a stage of maturity.

Year Unlinked Passenger Trips (000s)
1990 146,443
1991 170,726
1992 162,994
1993 168,451
1994 232,884
1995 243,403
1996 269,479
1997 261,619
1998 278,779
1999 286,671
2000 293,215
2001 310,612
2002 317,653
2003 329,261
2004 342,295
2005 362,428
2006 406,980
2007 429,765
2008 462,122
2009 457,118
2010 464,978
2011 488,504
2012 510,023
2013 518,536
2014 528,981
Source: APTA


APTA Ridership Reports

Babalik-Sutcliffe, E. (2002). Urban rail systems: Analysis of the factors behind success. Transport Reviews, 22(4), 415–447.

Dell'Olio, L., Ibeas, A., Dominguez, A., & Gonzalez, F. (2012). Passenger preference analysis: Light rail transit or bus versus car. Transport (16484142), 27(3), 276–285. doi:10.3846/16484142.2012.719839

Fouracre, P., Dunkerley, C., & Gardner, G. (2003). Mass rapid transit systems for cities in the developing world. Transport Reviews, 23(3), 299. doi:10.1080/0144164032000083095

Guerra, E., & Cervero, R. (2011). Cost of a ride. Journal of the American Planning Association, 77(3), 267–290. doi:10.1080/01944363.2011.589767

Kim, S., Ulfarsson, G. F., & Todd Hennessy, J. (2007). Analysis of light rail rider travel behavior: Impacts of individual, built environment, and crime characteristics on transit access. Transportation Research Part A: Policy & Practice, 41(6), 511–522. doi:10.1016/j.tra.2006.11.001

Kuby, M., Barranda, A., & Upchurch, C. (2004). Factors Influencing Light-Rail Station Boardings in the United States. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 38(3), 223–247. doi:10.1016/j.tra.2003.10.006

Lane, B. W. (2008). Significant Characteristics of the Urban Rail Renaissance in the United States: A Discriminant Analysis. Transportation Research Part A: Policy & Practice, 42(2), 279–295. doi:10.1016/j.tra.2007.10.001

McCommons, J. (2012). The Looming Crisis in Mass Transit. Saturday Evening Post, 284(4), 30–36.